The unsigned letter arrived in John Gascot's mailbox at the end of November, accusing him and his husband, Ron Diana, of living in a "gay house" and flying a rainbow flag as a way of "trolling for queers."
The local artist, one of the first to open a studio in the Pinellas Arts Village, a three-block stretch of galleries and shops along Park Boulevard, was enraged. He wanted to retaliate by painting his garage door "something rainbow."
Instead, he decided to open his studio to seven Pinellas County LGBTQ youth for four weeks this spring to give often-marginalized students the chance to create art in a judgment-free environment.
He wanted to offer them something that was lacking when he was growing up as a gay youth: acceptance, understanding, respect.
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Grace Knox, 13, walked into Gascot's first workshop session feeling nervous, aware that her artistic experience was limited to drawings she'd made at home and in an art class at Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg. When she learned she had four weeks to paint a self-portrait exploring how she sees herself and how she thinks others see her, she froze.
Grace is attracted to both boys and girls. She describes herself as bigender. She recently liked a boy and thought he might like her back until he told her that everything about her was bad — that she wasn't a good person. Since then, she's hidden how she feels about boys.
She's also cautious around girls. A few of them ridiculed her a year ago when she tried to use the girls' bathroom at Bay Point, making fun of her short hair and baggy shirt and calling her a boy. She's not used the restroom at school since.
"I put on a strong face to make it look like I'm not broken," Grace said. "But I feel like I'm lost in a snowstorm."
And so she began making tentative pencil marks on the left half of her canvas, scratching out a waif-like image of herself, head down, swimming in oversized clothing and engulfed in a swirling, grey void. On the right half, she sketched a much larger, bolder, male version of herself, elegantly dressed and standing confidently on a model's runway.
"Right now, I'm very not okay with how I look," she said. "I wear things to hide my body. But on the right-hand side, which represents the future, there's a light shining on me. I'm not insecure anymore."
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Like Grace, Alicia Hoe is questioning her sexual identity. But she knows one thing for sure: She resents the kids at her St. Petersburg school, Meadowlawn Middle, who assume she's straight because of the way she looks.
"A lot of people think that I like boys," said Alicia, who is 14. "Then they see me with a girl I'm in a relationship with and they give me nasty looks."
She admits she snapped at a boy in her sixth-period class who made fun of her and her ex-girlfriend, commenting just loud enough for her to hear. She let loose a stream of profanities, which she knew was useless and inappropriate, because she felt powerless to do anything else.
She also struggles with what she perceives as the expectation to be perfect.
"I say random things, I do random things," she said. I'm loud, I'm funny, but I can't show that because I don't want to irritate anyone."
So she decided to "act out" in her self-portrait.
She divided her canvas down the middle, painting one side of her face as she thinks others expect her to look: perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect mouth. She painted the other side of her face the way she sees her true self: uneven skin tone, mussed-up hair, a generous mouth with a rainbow flag cascading from her lips.
"I didn't know if we were supposed to draw ourselves the happy way or the honest way," Alicia said. "Saying I'm fine and being honest are two different things. I picked the honest way."
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As a homeschooled student, Emily Allard doesn't struggle with bullying the same way that Grace and Alicia do. Her mother, Vicki, removed her from the gifted program at Dunedin Highland Middle School shortly after Emily came out to her last fall.
The 13-year-old, who identifies as bifluid — neither masculine nor feminine — nevertheless has experienced the pain of not fitting in. In her case, the unkindness of others has been directed at her weight and the way she dresses.
"For a while, I was wearing a crown with paper flowers because it made me happy," Emily said. "I thought it looked nice, but people started picking on me because of it."
She suffered further abuse for wearing a furry tail to school, the remnant of a much-loved Halloween costume, because it made her feel confident.
"I was trying to be myself," Emily said, "but people didn't like who I was."
She decided to represent her "outside" and "inside" selves in her self-portrait. Her outside self stands ramrod straight, expressionless, against a dreary background. A single tear stains her cheek. Her inside self smiles amid pink swirls and red hearts and sports a flowered crown — and a tail.
She admits that portraying her inside self was more of a challenge.
"It was hard to identify with what that inside person is like," Emily said. "I hadn't thought about it as much."
• • •
On the night of the fourth and final workshop session, Gascot moved among the students, repeating the phrases he'd been uttering all along: Just go for it. Keep having a conversation with your canvas. There is no right or wrong.
The seven self-portraits were nearly complete, and the students were happy with their work, at least for the most part. No longer worried about whether they could paint, they now stressed over this Saturday's reception and exhibition, where they will share their creations with the public.
Putting the self-portraits on display was part of Gascot's plan from the start, an act of closure he feels strongly about.
"We could have just had the workshop and not the show, but I feel it's important to give the kids that sort of recognition," he said.
Gascot also firmly believes that the public needs to see the students' work. He plans future workshops, which will be open to students across Pinellas County.
"Maybe someone will come through the gallery feeling a certain way and feel differently after seeing what's come directly from the kids," he said.
Maybe, he added, the students' fledgling steps toward self-discovery through artistic expression will be as healing for others as he hopes it's been for them.